Nov 072013
 

Combat is on my mind of late, and it’s mainly down to what I was up to on Tuesday. Our first week of playing Orbis Terrarum started a bit late as we were waiting on a couple of chaps who weren’t part of the group when we generated characters, so we dropped into the second game with a fight just about to happen. I will be doing part two of my PC diary soon, to give you a blow by blow account of my heroic exploits. For now though, lets just take a look at how the system works, and what it does well, and what it might not do quite so well.

To begin with we have initiative; each person rolls a D10 and adds their reaction modifier to the roll, to give them their place in the initiative order. The reaction modifier is calculated during char gen, and is usually a low number, probably no more than 3-4, so most of this comes down to random chance. What doesn’t is the situation when combat starts, and what the metier of the encounter is. We discussed metier briefly during the last part of the review, but it applies to more than just people, and can have a distinct bearing on the game play throughout. Since this was an ambush, it meant that most people would be taken by surprise – I never did find out what the rest of the combat’s metier was, but ambush was bad enough – unless they were used to being in combat situations.

This meant that the warriors and fighters amongst the party don’t get the surprised modifier of minus ten, and can respond regularly. Everyone else reduces their initiative by ten points, so unless they did pretty well, won’t get an action this first turn. After the first turn, they lose the surprise modifier, and if they’re back into positive numbers, get an action. Once that’s sorted, we move onto the actual fighting. Combat is a back and forth in Orbis, but still manages to maintain a simplicity of dice rolling that I appreciate. You choose the attack you wish to make and roll against the relevant skill. Different attacks are based on different attributes, and have a base in either brawl, melee, or ranged. You then specialise in a weapon, getting ranks in it, and increasing it further with advancement points.

Getting below your score with a D100 roll means you will have hit, but your opponent will certainly be trying to stop you. They have several options in how they do this, but they all work in pretty much the same way. If they have a weapon that allows it, they may attempt to parry. Usually the parry score for a weapon is half of its attack value, but can be modified based on size and after market modifications. A shield is designed to block blows though, so your score in it is equal to your parry, and your attack is halved. The other option is to dodge out of the way of the blow, which means just using your dodge skill level instead of your parry. Whichever skill you use, you apply the level in it as a negative modifier against your opponent’s attack score.

This might seem a bit complicated, but once the combat begins, it gets really easy, with a one roll being made to determine the hit, and a number against it as a modifier. If you do manage to get through your opponents defenses, you need to know where you’ve hit, and how hard. The ‘tens’ result of the attack roll gives you your level of success, and the ‘ones’ your location. The level of success is used as a modifier added to how much damage you do, and can be increased depending on how you fight. Fighting defensively for instance means you get a bonus to your passive defensive skills, but will do less damage – rolling a smaller die, and doing less per level of success – whilst fighting aggressively grants you a bonus to attack, and the chance to do more damage, but severely limits your ability to avoid being hit on the counter attack.

When all that’s done, you just roll the necessary die for damage, adding the level of success plus strength based modifiers, and apply it to your opponent. Hitting in various locations doesn’t make too much difference unless they’re armoured in certain places, but not others, or if you’ve succeeded in a critical hit. If they are wearing armour, then it all comes down to armour type versus attack type. Slashing a knife across the chest of someone wearing plate armour for instance, won’t really do much, but stabbing a rapier through someone’s mail might just hit home and cause them all kinds of problems.

So there we have the combat system in a nutshell, we’d better get to grips with the intricacies. The aim of the combat system is to make it dangerous but heroic. If you’re no match for your opponent, you will either flee, die, or be spared, but will certainly still offer a challenge to them. If you’re the one with a higher skill one opponent will be little challenge while still posing a threat, but even one more enemy could up the threat rate considerably. When fighting someone of comparable skill though, things get a bit different.

I ended up fighting two different opponents, one of whom was of lower level with poor equipment, the second was a much more equal match with a decent weapon and shield. Dispatching the first wasn’t much of an issue, although he did manage to survive one more round than I expected whilst bleeding heavily from the jugular, the second was more of an issue. The reason it’s a challenge to fight multiple opponents, is that you suffer penalties for using your passive defenses more than once a turn. Luckily I had a little bit of magic up my sleeve so I managed a distraction to stop myself from getting attacked twice in a round, but then the combat got a bit sluggish for me.

Because my opponent – Marco – had a shield and had seen me dispatch his comrade earlier, he decided to fight defensively. This meant that even if I attacked aggressively I would have next to no chance of hitting him. He was in the same boat too, which meant that for two rounds, nothing happened. On the second, I didn’t even attempt an attack as I had done the maths, and realised how risky it would be. You see, for each rank you have in an attack skill, you automatically gain a one percent chance of hitting your opponent. For me this meant three percent. What stopped me making the roll though was the chance of critical failure.

Whenever you make a skill check in Orbis, a double on the roll indicates a critical. If you pass, it’s a critical pass, and if fail, vice versa. So I ended up with a three in one hundred chance of hitting, but a 9 in 100 chance of critically failing. The GM said this was intentional as with two equal opponents, the fight should be a stalemate until a mistake is made or forced. For me though it just meant that I had nothing to do while everyone else was kicking ass. I was tempted to resort to magic again – don’t worry, I’ll get into that in a different review – but luckily one of my compatriots turned up looking like the wild eyed Celt he is, and Marco promptly saw his options were limited and surrendered.

That was the only thing that didn’t go very well based on my experience, but it was situational, and in terms of the game world and the system made perfect sense. To be honest, I had to struggle somewhat to find something negative to say about the combat system. Initiative was worked out quickly, and once everyone had got their heads around the way attack and defenses were calculated, the combat flew through several rounds over several small melees. Other people who were playing less combat efficient characters were able to bring their own abilities into play without any problems, making a big difference to how the encounter played out.

I think everyone managed to bring their personal metier into play at least once too, allowing for the character’s personality traits and background to shape the way the action played out. As well as this having an in game effect, it also made it easier for the players to bring these factors in on a role playing level too, something that doesn’t happen often in combat. The fact that there’s no separate dice rolls required to defend or determine hit location means combat flows quickly and is intuitive, with everyone picking up the essentials in just one round.

Over all, I had a damned fine time and managed to avoid getting hurt at all, even against an opponent with military training. It all felt heroic, as if we were great people doing great deeds against an evil aggressor, but also dangerous. One of my fellow players, who had earlier ripped the ground out from under two people with Earth Power, was unable to stop a teenager with a knife from slashing his chest open.

the next part of this review will either be looking at the general themes of the game and the setting, or if we get enough of it, some thoughts on the various types of magic that are found throughout Uma. Until then, why don’t you head over and check out their Kickstarter. At time of writing they were over half way to hitting their first stretch goal.

Oct 212013
 

7203642580_30aee2d0d7So I have recently started playing the Chronicles of Riddick on the Xbox 360 – I know, how current am I? – and it had me thinking about difficulty levels in console games and how they might translate to traditional table top RPGs. Basically because it’s a bloody hard game, and I’m not that great at first person shooters anyway. I have in fact come upon an impasse fairly early on in the game, and before I continue I’m going to have to lower the difficulty. To sum up, I am trying to break out of a prison, but there are guards and turret guns, and I’m at a point where I’m struggling to find cover while being shot at from three directions, by two turrets and one guard. I can take out one enemy, but then die before I can make it to cover.

This is not a complaint about the game, which I think is actually pretty damned good, in fact the way the level has been designed reminds me a lot of the way that a Games Master would approach a problem. What both the GM and the Games Designer (GD) want is to make the level feel as realistic and challenging to the player/s as possible. If it was me designing the level, I would almost certainly have done the same thing. The guards seem to have some kind of radio transmitter that means the turret guns don’t target them, but prisoners are fair game. They have also covered all corridors with fields of fire, and then had guards around too, just to make sure. What I wouldn’t do was drop a few convenient chest high walls into the place to offer some cover. I’m sorry to all level designers out there, but it doesn’t matter if they’re collapsed bits of rubble, fallen trees or the corpses of my enemies, they all look out of place and just serve to warn you that a gun fight is about to break out. So thank you to whoever rocked this level design for not making lazy choices and keeping the game challenging.

What the GD didn’t do though was give the player/s a chance to come up with different ways to approach the problem. I know that by now a lot of readers will be thinking that this is just another part of the continuing story of why table top RPGs will also be better than computer games. Although this is certainly true, I think it’s worth saying again, and looking at what we can learn from computer games about things that we shouldn’t do as GMs. The biggest of these is limiting the choices of your players.

If I was a player for instance, I would be doing my damnedest to drag a dead guard into cover somewhere to see if I could figure out why they weren’t getting peppered with holes from the sentry guns. There may very well be a reason why I couldn’t just rip it off the corpse and make myself a tiny bit less killable, but I would like to know that and have a chance to examine things and find a way round that wasn’t just about shooty death and his less popular cousin stabby death.

This to me is why no table top RPG ever needs a difficulty level. No matter how dangerous you make a scene or encounter, the players will have near limitless options in how they approach and deal with any problems you put in front of them. Quite often they will work ways round your little obstacles that you would never have thought of, and the game is richer for it. They also – in almost every game – have real reasons to fear death for more than the slight inconvenience of having to replay a few minutes of a level to get to the point that they perished. Dying in an RPG should mean something more than a slight pain in the rear, and that means players have even more reason to think about different ways to solve a problem other than the all guns blazing approach.

Oct 072013
 

There are several types of games that exist under the umbrella that term ‘Gaming’. I myself, although much more of a role player than anything else, also board game a hell of a lot, and have spent many an hour – and far too much money – on both war gaming and card gaming. For the most part, role playing is the only one of these games that doesn’t really have winners and losers in any traditional sense. Of course there are exceptions, such as the rather wonderful Baron Munchausen game, but in almost every other way, it’s pretty impossible to be thought of as a winner or a loser whilst role playing.

You’re probably wondering why I’m devoting an article to such a proposition then, but I think there is nothing wrong with trying to achieve a win, and if nothing else, this could be an interesting thought experiment. Before we get into the meat of it though, there is a good reason why I’m not talking about losing at role playing. Every time I personally have had a bad game, it has been because of circumstances beyond my control. This not to say that I’m a perfect gamer – history will decide that – but that when I wasn’t enjoying games, it wasn’t down to what I was doing, rather that I wasn’t enjoying the setting, GMing style or interacting with some other gamers. I’m also highly aware that other players and GMs will certainly have looked at me in the same light. We are none of us perfect, but we should seek to change our behaviors for the better so that everyone can enjoy the game, not just ourselves.

I hope that makes sense, so lets get to the good stuff. Some of this will be personal taste, so please, as always, feel free to chime in with your ideas and thoughts in the comments section below.

For me, the most fun I ever have as a GM is when I get to sit back in near silence for minutes at a time. This might seem like an odd thing to enjoy, but it is for very good reasons, and I think they all sum up what I mean when I say it is possible to win at GMing. The times when I get to keep my trap shut are when my players are taking the lead. Not just in planning things out, although I do love that, but sometimes just sitting and talking things out in character. This means that they have allowed themselves to get so immersed in the world that a conversation in character without any clear need, just comes naturally to them.

I understand that a lot of this is down to having some great players who love to role play their characters, but making the setting seem as real as possible to them certainly helps, and that is something I feel I can take some small amount of pride in. But lets just say that they’re not talking in character – or at least not constantly – but still chatting away without really needing me. For a start, this will be game related chatter, as too much out of character banter can easily derail a game. What they are often doing is planning for something, or arguing amongst themselves about the best course of action.

If all they are doing is planning, I still put this in the “win” column. It shows that I haven’t just laid out a linear path for them, when all they need to do is follow my instructions and clues to progress to the next scene. Instead they need to engage their minds, and hammer out a whole bunch of possibilities before they feel they are ready to act. It’s even better if they manage to see a way through an obstacle that I’ve created in a way that I never imagined, as this stretches me a little as I have to think on the fly and run the game without letting them know that I was taken by complete surprise.

The simple fact that they are spending a considerable amount of time thinking about a course of action adds another victory condition for the person wearing the GM hat too; the players have become so attached to the characters that they’re playing, that they’re not being foolish enough to throw themselves into trouble and risk losing said characters. You don’t even need to be playing a system with a brutal combat mechanic for this to be true, as I find that spelling out just how much one successful hit affects them is often enough to have them thinking twice before stomping into a fight. And if they’re listening and paying attention, well that’s just another win for me.

You may have noticed throughout this post that not one of my victory conditions involves “beating” the players at anything. Whilst I am sure that there are games and gamers out there that make this the whole point of the experience, for me role playing is all about co-operative story telling. It doesn’t really matter which system or setting I’m using, I will be trying to get all of the players involved in creating an interesting narrative. If i manage to succeed, then that’s the biggest way to win.

Sep 302013
 

OK, it might be. There is some tantalising glimpses at some future posts though, so if you’re a fan, then please stay with me for the next five hundred words. First, sorry for a lame ass filler post. A few months back the company I work at started some major overhauls to its staffing, and this has meant that even though I’m on a twelve hour contract, doing six day weeks has been happening more and more. Heck, there are times when I’ve worked ten days straight without a day off. Last week we also had a major hardware and software upgrade while our senior member of staff was on holiday, at the same time as Fresher’s Fayre while I’m the president of our gaming society. All in all, not conducive to spending time in front of a computer.

Some of you may have noticed that I haven’t even been that active on other blogs that I follow. This is for the same reason. I tend to flick through them quickly on my mobile during breaks, or of an evening, but rarely have the time to post well thought replies. Don’t worry, I am checking you all out, you just don’t know about. Anyway, onto less creepy sounding things.

My column at Stuffer Shack should return this week, as things are getting a bit back to normal, and I’m in the mood for trying out something different. I’ve already done a bunch of plot seeds, and a large handful of character ideas for people to use. At the moment I’m thinking about trying my hand at a bestiary of some sort. I will be going through folkloric creatures from old English lore, and adapting them to fit into fantasy games, so check that out from the weekend onward.

On this blog I will be looking at what – if any – winning conditions exist for a player of role playing games, and the people who run them too. I’ts just a little something that’s been on my mind but I’ve had trouble pinning down. Work is proceeding though, so should be something on that soon.

I also have started some work researching a couple of my weapons posts too. The first comes after a conversation with a re-enactor last week about how brawling skills are way more important than you would think when it comes to a melee, and the second is on the humble spear. A question was asked on a forum when I was pimping my document about why the spear was used so often throughout history but us far from popular in RPGs. I think I’ve found a few answers, and some other little factoids too.

So there you have it, a few little ideas to keep you going, and a promise that I will try really hard to do better in future. Still, I’ve been at this for over a year, and this is the first time I’ve not done a weekly post with actual content. Depending on how the next couple of days go, I might have a review post to put up before the end of the week to keep the hordes at bay.

Sep 022013
 

I know, “the Slaughter sword”. It just sounds like something you’d want to use in any game ever doesn’t it? The thing is, you’ve probably encountered it by a different name, as this is just what it was known as to certain English speakers. More commonly it was called a Zweihänder, although it did have many other names. For simplicity’s sake though, we’ll just be calling it a two handed sword. This is actually a very important distinction though, as to be a true two handed sword, it must be designed in such a way as that it must be hefted with both hands. Although there are plenty of swords that can be used with both hands, they can also be swung with just the one, and more often than not would be thought of as “hand-and-a-half”  swords.

two-handed-great-sword-88wgs-full-1I have written in the past about ways to get more use out of a longer sword whilst fighting in confined quarters, but swords of this length would not be useful for such conditions. Before we move on to how one would go about getting the most use out of this kind of sword, lets address what a lot of people are concerned about when it comes to picking up and using it, the weight. I could go on a bit of a metallurgical rant here, but I think that’s better left to the professionals who have devoted more time to the study of such things. In simple terms, what everyone needs to understand is something that most gamers know, but has yet to make its way into the popular consciousness: whilst the Katana is indeed an elegant weapon, it was far from the unique marvel of sword craft that a lot of people seem to think.

In the early medieval period, vikings (Yup, no capitol letter there, a lot of current historical theory is pointing towards viking being a verb rather than a noun. As in, “lets all sharpen our axes and go viking”!) were using a very similar method of steel folding and smelting to create lighter weight but still large swords to take raiding. So even swords made that would be long enough to be considered two handed would not have been overly heavy during the medieval period that most fantasy RPGs seem to be set in. In historical terms. the Zweihänder was actually used more commonly during the renaissance period anyway, when metallurgical techniques had been greatly improved. But since history is often fluid and only used when it is fit for purpose during RPGs, lets not get ourselves too bogged down in that kind of detail.

Taking ceremonial blades out of the equation – which were considerably heavier, but not designed or intended to be swung into the face of a charging barbarian – the most one would be expected to weigh is roughly 7 pounds. I know that that might seem heavy compared to other blades, but it was designed to be used effectively with two hands, offering greater leverage for the swing. And as we all know, in physics, leverage is very important indeed. Swinging the weapon is no problem when held correctly, and the weight it has will make it formidable indeed on the battlefield. Why didn’t we see such a weapon getting greater use then?

Apart from the afore mentioned fact that it wasn’t around so much during the medieval period of great battles, it was mainly because of the cost of such a weapon, and the fact that it never made sense to equip units with it. Most of the other weapons I’ve talked about on this blog have mainly been used to great effect by massed troops. The warbow was wonderful when hundreds of archers loosed volleys into the enemy ranks, the gladius was easy to produce in numbers and very effective when used by close knit ranks of well disciplined troops and so on and so forth. The Zweihänder though was inconvenient to say the least to with fight when you are stood in close formation with your allies.

This actually makes it a great for player characters in RPGs as they would not often worry about maintaining formation when they fought a pack of angry gnolls. It is a weapon for an individual, and the fact that having one made was an expensive and time consuming would make them rare weapons with a whole bunch of mythology all of their own. They are also more versatile then you’d think. The rather excellent cinematic game 7th Sea has a whole lot to say on the fighting styles one could use for a weapon this long, and I advise anyone with an interest to pick up the relevant nation book for more details.

For those without the resources to pick up said books, the three basic stances allow for the wide swing – and historically there is evidence to suggest that such a swing could take out up to three combatants in one go – with the legs apart to keep balance; the bracing stance, holding the weapon almost as a pike to fend off mounted troops or small units of halberdiers. And finally, holding it with the hilt over your shoulder and the point aimed at chest height, using both hands and the leverage to move to weapon at speed to combat against units wielding smaller edged weapons. A lot of Zweihänders even had gripping rings at the cross guard to make it easier to hold it in this fashion and maintain a high degree of maneuverability.

If you are lucky enough to hang out with a few other people also skilled – and rich – enough to wield such a ferocious weapon, you can do some real damage. Just make sure you’re spread out a little first. With three to five people holding a loose formation, swinging the Zweihänder, you can hold off large units of pike men, the swords cutting through the shafts before bringing down those holding the long pole arms. Small units such as these were favoured in battle for useful and versatile they could be, and once more are a great idea for your very own role playing games.

Aug 212013
 

images

So yeah, the new Batman: Arkham Origins trailer may not be an actual play trailer (which is what I was really hoping for), but in amongst the various set pieces, there looks to be a few clips that could actually be taken from game play. There isn’t really any way to be 100% sure, but being a pretty big fan of the first two, there just seems to be moments where the camera stops following the action from a purely cinematic angle, and hangs just over Batman’s right shoulder; exactly where it spends most of the time in the previous outings. Take a look and see what you think.

I know this is a table top role playing blog, and a few of you will likely be wondering why I’m taking about a console game, but I really do like the treatment given to Gotham City’s most famous sons and daughters in the last couple of games, and a lot of that comes down to the characterisations. In game play terms, it’s little more than a very pretty beat-em-up, but the plot lines are superbly thought out, and each character is brought to life with a rare passion. Add to that my opinion that I don’t think there has ever been a more faithful adaptation of the comic books in any other media than the games, and it’s my kind of game.

I’m sure those of you who played the last game will remember the bit the Joker does during the credits, but there are plenty of times during the game that had me just as invested in what was going on. I think all of us can learn something from this level of detail put into characters in a game. And I think even Batman’s most famous nemesis wouldn’t necessarily think of himself as a bad guy. If there ever was going to be an exception to that rule though, I think the Joker would certainly qualify.

Aug 052013
 

I haven’t done a weapon post in a while, because I like to bring something to the table that might not be common knowledge. As much as I could wax lyrical about basic sword fighting techniques or go on at length about my favourite kind of axe, it’s all stuff that most gamers will be familiar with. What doesn’t get that much attention though is the humble sling. I can see why, as most fantasy role playing games are set in a time period pretty similar to that of the dark ages through to the high medieval period, and at that time, slings were nowhere near as common as they once were.

There are very good reasons for this in pure historical terms, but few of them translate well to a role playing game. For instance the time it would take to become proficient with a sling was far too long. Most people who knew how to use them to full effectiveness trained since they were children. Although medieval bowmen also practiced from a young age, it wasn’t as necessary to be competent with the weapon. In game terms this shouldn’t be a big deal though, as time spent to master skills is a little bit more abstract.

In terms of using a weapon for warfare, the bow is superior as it is easier to arrange for massed ranks to volley fire. The sling, by its very nature is tricky when it comes to getting more than a handful of people to loose their shot in unison. But since standing in massed ranks firing arrow after arrow is hardly what most people would expect out of a role playing experience, this again shouldn’t be too much of an issue. Finally – before we get to the good stuff – warbows and crossbows were excellent to shoot from behind cover. They were especially good when it came to firing through loopholes in walls. Doing this with a sling is pretty much an impossibility.

Sling-1-There are a fair few excellent reasons to use the sling more in RPGs though. Firstly the range and damage of a sling – firing optimal ammunition – is at least as good as a bow and arrow. Average range is roughly 150 metres by someone without a lifetime of practice, but the world record by a skilled user is considerably longer. The velocity of a lead shot is also greater than an arrow in flight. This means that accuracy is improved as it can be fired at a slightly more direct angle rather than a large arc.

Arrows do have a slight edge when it comes to penetration though, as they have a smaller point of impact and are much more likely to pierce flesh and armour. Don’t think that I’m selling the sling short though, although a shot is unlikely to punch through armour, the can still do a massive a mount of blunt trauma damage. Based on anecdotal evidence a lead shot can punch an inch deep dent into a corrugated iron. Just imagine what that would do any flesh beneath the metal armour. You don’t need to imagine too much though, as we know from historical documents that ancient Roman army surgeons had a special set of forceps used to extract shot that was embedded into combatant’s flesh.

So, we have a ranged weapon that matches if not exceeds the longbow in terms of range and damage, and it is also a damned sight easier to make it, as is the ammunition it uses. An effective sling is made from natural fibers such as hair and flax, which is pretty easy to come across almost everywhere. Although it is time consuming to weave a sling, once you know how to it, practice will reduce the time taken to make more. And compared to the time required to make a compound bow or to treat the wood necessary for a warbow, it was really very little time at all.

As for ammunition, well basically you can just pick up something that would suffice from the ground. Any small stone will do the job, but if you can find them, stones that have been smoothed by river water are far superior as the smoothness makes them more aerodynamic. The ideal shape is not unlike an Rugby ball, as this allows the shot to sit snugly in the sling pouch, and aids in the aerodynamics by putting on spin on the shot. What you really want though is a lead shot. Because it is a denser material it will better velocity and be much more likely to cause an injury. The fact that each shot can be cast to a desired shape is also very important.

If you’re just picking stones up from the ground then each shot will need to be made differently to take into account the changes in weight and size of the stone. As mentioned above the density of the lead means that you can will do more damage when you hit, but it will also have a better range and accuracy and too. And if you want to have some fun, it is possible to cast your own personal message onto a lead shot. Historical examples include the Legion number of the soldiers loosing the shot, and some slightly sillier ideas like, “catch!”, and “beware your teeth”.

In conclusion, for a single user wanting something quick and easy to use and obtain ammunition for, the sling is pretty perfect. Maybe not ideal within the enclosed spaces of a low ceiling-ed dungeon corridor, but out in the wild, there’s a reason that they were used for centuries to hunt with.

Jul 152013
 

Choose-Your-Weapon-Dice-TabletopOnce more I find myself taking inspiration from the writing process, as work continues apace on my Steampunk RPG: Rise of the Automata. I’m still chugging away nicely on it and have almost finished the section I will need to try a play test of the combat system out. I’m not going to go on at length about what this will entail, as I have a different blog for that, but it has made me think about the kind of combat system I wanted to create, as it would be the kind I also wanted to play.

In the past I have made note of how much I love the Cyberpunk 2020 role playing game, but still felt the need to tidy up the combat system a little bit, as it wasn’t quite what I wanted. There wasn’t a great deal wrong with it, but there was just a bit too much dice rolling for my mind. And that’s what this post boils down to, and what I want to talk about; I want a combat system that truly is fast and fun. In the CP 2020 combat rules, when you attack anyone in close combat, either with a weapon or without, both combatants roll off against each other. Since this should happen at the same time, it technically shouldn’t slow thing down, but it does. There’s an awful lot to take into account when making a combat roll in CP 2020 anyway, two people doing it just takes that little bit longer. And the fact that what you have is a fluid target number also means a heavy degree of unpredictability, so people spend a lot longer thinking about whether or not luck should play a role in this moment.

So I removed the need for people to roll against each other by creating a very basic way of characters to have a target number that represents their ability to either parry or dodge an attack. It worked pretty damned well; the only failing being my own as I forgot to write down what I had used to make this number, or tell the players how to do it either. It was based on a combat skill, and as they were putting points into it, the parry/dodge score should have been going up too. My bad. So in the game I’m working, I have done something similar, but made a special box for it on the character sheet, so that it should be easier to track.

Another combat system I generally like, but could do with streamlining, is Savage Worlds. For a system that claims to be Fast and furious, combat can sometimes drag. Mainly down to two reasons based on my experience: initiative order changing every round, and being Shaken. Initiative first; I understand that combat should be fluid, but changing the order each round by the draw of a card is not the best way to go about it. I have recently been involved in play test sessions for 6D6, and I love one of their ideas about initiative. If there is a narrative reason for one character to go first, then they do – as long as it is agreed upon by all participants – and then they nominate the next active character. This means that the order is fluid, and the players can make tactical decisions in how they operate. A lovely idea, and one I thoroughly enjoy. I’ll be sticking with good old fashioned rolling once then setting the order though, as it’s simple and quick.

Being Shaken in a combat round is a big pain in the ass. I know why the rule is there, but it just means that a player has the potential to be a damned big hero who just lays there for several rounds as they fail test after test to regain their senses. I personally would like to just ditch this rule, but it would make player characters a bit too powerful, and they really don’t need any help in that area. if anyone has any thoughts on this, I’d love to hear them.

So far then, it seems the best thing to do to speed up combat is to reduce the number of dice rolls. Before anyone points it out, I know that Amber does that job spectacularly well, but I’m still a bit too much of a fan of random chance to go full dice-less. So I have a parry/dodge mechanic to cut down on one set of dice rolls, and I am also trying out something that should do away with damage and hit location rolls. This idea has not yet been tested out, but it should be fun.

At its heart, the game uses a 2d10 system. So, you roll to hit, adding the two dice together and checking against the target number. If successful, you choose one of the results for hit location, and the other for damage. This works for all characters, so it isn’t just the players who get more control over how they deal damage. This could still be broken, and I may need to insist on different colour dice so that one will always be location, the other damage, but I’d like to try this out first, and see how it goes down.

So there you have it, some thoughts on speeding up the flow of combat, and a crazy idea i want to try. If you have any thoughts of your own, please feel free to share them below. If you think my ideas stink, please keep the raging torrent of bile down to about two paragraphs. I thank you.

Jan 292013
 

Although the Roman period is very well documented indeed, especially the activities of its soldiers and armies, there is still a lot we don’t know, or at least, cannot be sure of. For these things, we have to thank a particular breed of historical re-enactors who would be better labelled as ‘living archaeologists’. They look at the things that would be available during the time period, and what we do know from primary source documents, and use the objects to find out how they would be used. It is because of Roman military enthusiasts that we can guess so accurately the things we can never know about the time period because of unfortunate gaps in the historical records. So, if you’re reading bits of this and questioning whether it was ever mentioned in a primary source document, all I can tell you is that people with more knowledge and resources than myself say it’s the best guess they can make.

roman-gladius-sword

The sword that was used almost exclusively during the the time of the Roman Empire – by Romans at least – was the Gladius. After spending a lot of time looking at ancient and medieval weapons in various museums I think I would rank it as one of my favourite swords. True, the hand and half sword of the Holy Roman Empire has its charm, but for pure elegant simplicity of design, you can’t do much worse than the gladius.

It needed to be simple to make it in huge quantities as it would be given to every member of every legion. When they were performing combat drills they used wooden versions of this sword with a lead weight core to simulate the feel of actually wielding it, without as much danger of real lasting physical damage. Along with the armour, shield and javelins, it was an essential bit of kit, and not having it about you at all times while serving was unheard of.

Before we get into how it was used, this articles subtitle should probably get explained. I love the idea of larping (Live Action Role Playing), and if money was no object, I’d be more than to happy to join in. What would make it such a bother for me though, is that I’m such a fan of the Roman style of sword play, and that style is decidedly dangerous with LARP safe weapons. They are usually carbon cored, and wrapped in molded latex, painted and sealed. They are great for slashing and hacking, but you are really not supposed to stab with them. The latex is strong, but too much pressure and the core will push out the end of it and could do some actual damage to your opponent. And stabbing was what a gladius did best…

It was a short blade with a wicked point, designed to enter flesh as easily as it could.

Click image for source

Click image for source

When we look at the formations that the legions would fight in, there was little room indeed to swing a blade, even one as short as this. In close formation, with large shields locked (more on shields to follow, but the way they were used by the legions was just as unsafe for LARP) the enemy tiring itself out attempting to batter its way through, a sudden, strong underarm stab to the stomach or armpit was very effective. Not just that, but it was also efficient. It required a lot less energy to cut into flesh this way than with a slash. All of the strength is focused down the length of the blade, instead of across it, and this means no energy wasted, and the point has less area, meaning less force required to break the skin.

A stabbing blow – if administered correctly – had an extra hint of lethality to it as well. Opening the wound is one thing, but twisting before pulling out means it will bleed a lot more, do considerably more damage to any internal organs struck by it, and – if the victim survives the blow – makes it considerably harder to treat afterwards. All good stuff, but as you can imagine, not so useful with a foam weapon.

In pen and paper RPGs though, you should all be taking advantage of this. Not every system takes into account special combat moves such as these, but take the time to explain to your GM what you’re doing, and why, and I’m sure that they’ll cave and allow you to do the damage that one would expect. Don’t push it though, this isn’t about playing the system, just having fun. It’s only a little personal gripe of mine that short/small swords seem to get a bum rap in the damage tables.

It is of course worth bearing in mind that it’s rare for player characters to fight in close, well drilled formations, such as one would find in the legions. That’s fine, as stabbing is still stabbing, no matter when or where you do it. I would still advise using a shield, but unless you have at least a line to join, go for something a bit smaller than a tower shield to maintain mobility. Since you’re not in formation, you can also swing the gladius too.

Although it lacks the weight of broadswords and other such weapons, and suffers quite a bit for lack of reach, swinging can still be somewhat effective. I would say that if you get the chance, stick to the stab attack, but if you’re going to swing, don’t even think about doing it the same as you would with a larger sword. Getting close enough for it to be effective is far too risky, and you won’t do anywhere near as much damage. Instead, just keep reminding yourself that end two inches of your sword are the most dangerous, and use this to rake across your enemies. True, you’ll lack the bone breaking, internal organ crushing of Dave the Barbarian and his broadsword, but you should still be able to open a significant wound, and have little problem getting past soft armour. Just keep the point well honed.

I hope that some of that was of use to my readers, as always, feel free to share your own thoughts and experiences below, and check back regularly for the follow up article on Roman shield techniques.

Sep 242012
 

There has been talk on a few of the blogs I follow – and even in a forum thread or two - about the feasibility of using anything like a long sword in a dungeon environment. There are ways to make a hand-and-a-half sword, or even a two handed sword, still a viable weapon for a fight in an enclosed space. This week we are talking about the Murder Strike.

The image above shows this move in action. As you can see, the sword is pretty long, but held half way down the blade, so that the arc needed to swing is reduced. Now, some of you out there may be wondering why there’s any point swinging the sword in such a way, instead of using the blade. To answer this, first we need to understand how a medieval war-hammer actually works. If you’re thinking Mjölnir, you’re a little bit out. No, the war 

hammer that would be used by footmen against knights in armour is a little bit more like this–>. Note the sharpened back end of the weapon. Now, I have been lucky enough to see what such a weapon, correctly forged, can do to a steel chest plate. Trust me on this, the two large holes where the spike punched several inches through the metal to where the ribs would be were very worrying indeed. 

The cross guards on medieval long swords – the bits that stopped an attacking blade sliding down your own and slicing your fingers off – were often molded into points. This was not purely for decorative purposes, as you can imagine when performing the murder strike. This would be performed as a two handed strike, so imagine the force with which the cross guard would hit the armour of your opponent. Even if you were unlucky, and didn’t get the clean hit needed to punch a large hole in the metal, and the flesh beneath, you would still have a chance to knock them back, maybe even off their feet.

If you scroll back up to the top image, you will notice that not only is the man performing the murder strike gripping his sword blade with open hands, but the poor chap on the receiving end is also grasping his blade when defending. This is another interesting aspect of medieval sword fighting. The blades, although when swung with enough force could do massive damage were rarely, if ever, honed to razor sharpness. There were at least two reasons for this, the first being that it was unnecessary. The amount of pressure over a surface required to cut flesh was easily taken care off without needing an razor edged blade when a sword was swung with enough force. It was also a waste to try and keep the blade that sharp, as after a few swings at another blade, or maybe the armour of your opponent, the edge would quickly dull.

This does give you edge in a close quarters fight with limited room to swing or use a shield, as it allows the defender to hold the blade firmly to parry and block blows with much greater ease than if the sword was held in one hand. If the user is proficient enough, this defensive stance an also allow a quick and deadly riposte. Don’t forget that the Romans perfected a method of sword fighting that used the point of the sword to great effect. When using a long sword in a closed space, use your off hand to hold the blade as you would when using to block, and if you turn aside a blow, drive the point of your sword forward, the accuracy you gain from holding the blade in both hands means a high chance of hitting a gap in your opponent’s armour with a good deal of force.

I hope some of the above has been useful for you all, and if you have any tips of your own, please share below.